Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Woman in Green (1945)

The Woman in Green was the eleventh of the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies. It was released by Universal in 1945. It’s an original story but like many of the films in this series it borrows elements from several of Conan Doyle’s stories.

London is in the grip of terror caused by a series of grisly murders. The victims are all young women and after murdering them the killer has neatly removed one of their fingers. Scotland Yard is baffled. In desperation Inspector Gregson (Matthew Boulton) asks Sherlock Holmes for help.

Of course the obvious conclusion is that the murders are the work of a Jack the Ripper copycat but Holmes has his doubts. There are puzzling indications that suggest that these slayings are not the work of a homicidal maniac.

Holmes gets his first solid lead when the daughter of a very prominent man, Sir George Fenwick, consults him about her father. The night before she saw him wandering in his garden, trying to bury something - a severed human finger!

There is a diabolical plot afoot and Holmes has other problems - someone has tried to kill him.

There is, as the title suggests, a mysterious woman involved in this case. Could there also be a fiendish criminal mastermind pulling the strings behind the scenes?

Although this is a late entry in the cycle it’s a very good one. It boasts a nicely twisted little plot courtesy of screenwriter Bertram Millhauser. In the original version of the script the murder victims were children. The Production Code Authority, quite rightly, vetoed this. 

The screenplay has been criticised for supposed plot holes, such as the failure to explain the motivations for the four earlier murders. Personally I don’t agree. I think it’s extremely clear that all five murders were carried out with the same intentions and had the same results and there was no reason to explain something so obvious to the audience. The use of an innocent man as the would-be assassin of Sherlock Homes has also been criticised as being simply a lazy way to offer Holmes an important clue. Again I disagree. I think the choice of assassin was exactly the sort of thing that would appeal to Moriarty.

Rathbone and Bruce are in good form. Bruce as usual delivers the comic relief but in this case it’s subtle and gently amusing. Bruce also gets at least a few opportunities to demonstrate his ability to be serious and sensitive.

Henry Daniell is a marvelously cold-blooded Moriarty. Hillary Brooke provides both glamour and danger as the mysterious woman and does so to very good effect. Like most actresses she thoroughly enjoyed playing the femme fatale.

Like most of the Universal Sherlock Holmes movies The Woman in Green was directed by Roy William Neill. Neill was a cut above most of the directors employed by Universal on B-movies in the 1940s. His style is not ostentatious but it’s effective. He makes nicely subtle use of low-angle shots to highlight the menace of Professor Moriarty (yes of course Moriarty makes an appearance). He throws in a few Dutch angles as well but again they’re used sparingly and only when needed. They’re appropriate here, given one of the key plot elements (which happens to be oner of my favourite plot devices but I won’t spoil things by revealing what it is). There’s also some good special effects work by the studio’s resident expert in such matters John P. Fulton. This is actually a rather stylish movie.

The Woman in Green does not have the overt gothic elements that appear in several of the movies in this series. On the other hand it does have a surprisingly dark edge to it and there is a real sense of evil.

The Sherlock Holmes movies were in fact among the best of Universal’s 40s B-pictures. They’re all very well-crafted and quite atmospheric.

My copy of this movie came from Optimum’s Sherlock Holmes - The Definitive Collection DVD boxed set. The transfer is superb and there’s a swag of extras including an audio commentary by David Stuart Davies.

The Woman in Green is a worthy entry in Universal’s Sherlock Homes cycle even if it’s not quite up to the standard of The Scarlet Claw or The Pearl of Death or The Spider Woman. Highly recommended.

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